Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.
Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.
I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)
The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.
Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.
On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.
According to the Planning Commission’s website:

New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.

Public hearings on the CZO are scheduled for August 26, as well as September 2 and 9. Written comments must be received by 5pm, Monday, September 1, 2014. (For details, look here.)
What does all this have to do with culture?
A great deal.

Especially in New Orleans, where so much culture bubbles up from and is played out in the streets, and is incubated and branded in specific neighborhoods—but actually wherever culture happens in cities.
I’ve been writing for the past nine years about indigenous New Orleans jazz culture—not just its joys and its role in rebuilding, but also the curious tensions and inhibitions that surround it, which have grown starker and more urgent since the 2005 flood, and that often have basis (and, I’d argue, solutions) in matters of city ordinances and, yes, zoning.
For those who live in New Orleans, those who travel there regularly in real life or just in their minds and hearts, and those who treasure its culture from afar, this moment—when an as-yet-undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one—speaks volumes regarding what is exceptional about the city’s culture, and how those in power might best support and nurture (as opposed to simply promote or, worse, suppress) that exceptional resource. There are some aspects of this dynamic that are particular to New Orleans—say, the climate surrounding second-line parades. But there are also reasons why the ways in which this story plays out will inform other cities that wonder how to balance homegrown culture with the steamrolling effects of development and the polarizing nature of growing inequity.
Tensions around New Orleans culture tend to bubble up as provoked by specific incidents: a funeral procession turns into an ugly spectacle of police intervention; the Social Aid & Pleasure clubs that mount second-line parades sue the city in federal court over prohibitive fees; a brass-band gets shut down while playing on its usual corner; a popular club gets cited for violating this or that ordinance, based on a neighbor’s complaint.
Much of civic life and city governance revolves around negotiating individual circumstances; no two cases are the same. Yet it’s been clear for a very long time to the attorneys, activists, musicians and culture lovers in New Orleans (as well as to a journalist like me covering this scene) that New Orleans has long been at odds with the very culture that defines it and that much of the city’s tourism is based upon. The very idea is mind-boggling to those who live outside New Orleans: a city whose image is largely derived from its live musical entertainment and other cultural rituals essentially outlawing or severely inhibiting public performance and expression through noise, quality-of-life, and zoning ordinances. New Orleans has a penchant for ritual, and for reliving its past; yet just because the city’s culture has always occupied embattled space does not mean it must remain so.
What New Orleans has needed for a long time—what there now exists a unique opportunity to craft—is a broadly conceived policy that removes culture from the crosshairs of controversy though the creation reasonable, clear and supportive ordinances, realistic methods of enforcement, and enough popular awareness to create a sea-change in attitude.
The ninth anniversary of the flood that couldn’t wash away New Orleans culture might best be honored by removing the obstacles that some fear will whittle that culture away or twist it into something lesser in the name of development.
Here are key areas of interest:
Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO): In the 1970s, the city passed a zoning ordinance that actually prohibits live entertainment in New Orleans, save for spots that are either grandfathered in or otherwise exempted (nonconforming uses) or specially designated as exceptions (overlays). “It’s a draconian ordinance,” one civil-rights attorney told me, “and a blanket over the city.”
According to Ethan Ellestad, who is coordinator for the nonprofit Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), which has emerged as, among other things, a clearinghouse for information about such matters, the new draft CZO is “better than the existing one, but still unfortunately limiting.”
It eliminates the definitions within “live entertainment” that would in past have technically precluded things like poetry readings, mime performances, and a birthday party with a guy playing piano. It also better supports the booking of live music in restaurants (however, it restricts those acts to three unamplified musicians, which, if you ask any trombonist, creates issues). It allows for performance venues in some sections of the Tremé neighborhood, yet prohibits them along North Rampart Street, near Armstrong Park, where there have historically been significant clubs.
More generally, it maintains a basic posture of prohibiting live entertainment (including music) except where expressly indicated, mostly via specific overlays. Would it be impossible to take the opposite approach: Allow and invite live entertainment except where specifically prohibited or limited? Is that a naïve question to pose? The new CZO also does nothing to support the many venues—from the well-known Tipitina’s to smaller spots such as Buffa’s (which was the subject of recent lawsuit)—that present music as a “nonconforming use.”
Now is the time for cool and well-informed heads to take up the task of once and for all crafting a scheme that supports musicians and others personally invested in culture while also inviting smart investment in what Mayor Mitch Landrieu likes to call “cultural economy.” It’s worth noting that the current scheme of ordinances creates a chilling effect (through the ongoing threat of lawsuits and the essentially tenuous nature of legality) to ownership of a performance venue for all but the most high-powered national franchises (who can afford such risk) and lowest-common-denominator proprietors (who will ignore it).
Noise Ordinance: During the several months recently when the New Orleans city council revisited this ordinance, there was an effort to rename it as a “sound ordinance,” which sounds, well, gentler. But it’s clear that such an ordinance is needed to mediate between homeowners and businesses that deem even beautiful music as unwanted “noise.” That sounds right: Property owners have rights and reasonable expectations.
Most of the lobbying and legislating recently around this issue has centered around setting acceptable decibel-level limits to sound—a laudable goal that has given rise to some fascinating science (chiefly from David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired to consult) and some serious local infighting. After the city council proposed a revision to these ordinances shortly before Christmas, a loud public outcry culminated in rally that filled council chambers with musicians playing hymns in protest.
That ordinance draft was shelved. Months later, the council revisited this and related ordinances, with much detailed public discussion in its chambers, but the council ultimately did not act on a carefully negotiated revision. It’s time for the new council (seated in May) to revisit this and act conclusively.
Perhaps more to the point for musicians and their supporters, the revised ordinance that did not pass would have accomplished two citywide goals:
Decriminalizing violations to the sound ordinance (subjecting musicians and others to fines but not to potential arrest)
•  Rescinding Section 66-205 (curfew), which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”
The recent skirmish over noise and related ordinances was in fact largely sparked by an incident in 2010, when the TBC Brass Band was served notice by police shortly after setting up shop, just as they’ve been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. The band had run afoul of Section 66-205.
Never mind that many tourists come to New Orleans with the specific expectation of happening upon musical instruments being played on street after 8pm. And never mind that City Attorney Sharonda Williams argued in May before the city council that the curfew is unconstitutional. (Williams explained that the present law is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent establishing music as protected speech in the first place, and that any restrictions on such need be “content neutral and narrowly tailored.” She said, “The concern here is that this is about musical instruments. It’s not even about music in general. It is not about recording music. It is not about sound. It’s about a particular class of people.”)
It’s time to do away with Section 66-205 as one specific element of an overarching cultural policy for two reasons: To eliminate an unenforceable law, and to signal a respectful intent. (I’ll never forget this comment to me from Hot 8 Brass Band tuba player and leader Bennie Pete, during a 2007 interview: “We can sugarcoat it all kinds of ways, but the truth is that the police look at us brass-band musicians as uncivilized. That’s why they’re trying to confine us.”)
During a press conference at this year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, shortly after the city council passed on adopting a revised noise ordinance, I asked Mayor Landrieu about these issues. He said that he was encouraged about the discussions to date, and that he hoped a reconstituted council would achieve proper legislation. As for the curfew? “It has to go,” he said, “because it focuses on a narrow set of people, and not on a level of noise.”
—Pardon the interruption: In New Orleans, it seems that there’s always a wrinkle, a subterfuge, that distracts eyes from remaining, so to speak, on the prize, and that brings to the surface yet deeper worries.
This week, as I spoke and emailed with attorneys and activists about the draft CZO and its potential effects on culture, the distraction began with an email from Bill Quigley, a law professor and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, about hastily introduced ordinances ostensibly targeted at a growing population of homeless encampments. The ordinance also must be seen as in response to recent rallies in solidarity regarding the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Of course, such issues regarding policing are of central concern for New Orleanians at home. And lest anyone think these matters are removed from the cultural community, consider the recent experience of trumpeter Shamarr Allen.)
Quigley’s letter to council members, circulated via email, pointed out the unconstitutional and essentially reprehensible aspects of this latest legislative effort; it also mentioned much broader and potentially problematic areas of implication. There are several off-putting oddities to this piece of legislation, not least the singling out of “basketball goal equipment” for prohibition. Most troubling to my crowd was a section that states:

If any person, by performance of any outdoor act or activities, causes a crowd to 20 gather, and if the crowd makes passage by pedestrians inordinately difficult or 21 conducts activities which impede access to the public rights-of-way, the 22 department of police shall have the authority to order such person(s) to cease 23 performance of their act or activities. The person(s) to whom such an order is 24 given must obey the order immediately or be subject to arrest…

In a city where second-line parades, jazz funeral processions and assemblies of Mardi Gras Indians in massive feathered and beaded suits are defining elements of cultural life, where all of the above often (constitute the form of political action in the streets, it’s easy to understand what prompted urgent emails flying, one with this title: “Alert: N.O. city council attempting to outlaw marches and protests.”
(While writing this post, I learned that the city council has deferred this particular ordinance vote for 30 days, and that perhaps the offensive passage above will not be at issue. That’s good, if only because it allows the bright lawyers and committed activists I know to focus squarely on the issues at hand regarding cultural policy.)
At this year’s jazzfest press conference Mayor Landrieu told me, “There is a way to organize culture without killing it.” However one feels about attempts to “organize culture” in principle, that’s the job of coherent policymaking.
Or rather, let me reframe the challenge in a more positive light: There is a way to support and nurture culture through intelligent, thought-through policies. (Logically, respect and support for the city’s indigenous jazz culture should go hand-in-hand with a sound investment in cultural economy: In the most crass analysis, if you’re building a market for brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and traditional jazz, you’re not going to want to cut of the supply.)

In the discussions around these issues there are many voices, including those of the members of organizations such as Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) and French Quarter Citizens, who have been vocal and forceful in promoting their points of view, which are usually at odds with, say, MACCNO’s agenda. These ought to be heard and absorbed, and reconciled with the needs and desires of musicians and others with a vested interest in culture.
Back in January, at a rally outside City Hall to raise awareness about a noise ordinance proposal, two representatives of MACCNO, Hannah Kreiger-Benson and Sue Mobley, issued a statement that included this passage:

Throughout MaCCNO’s work, we have seen the issues around regulation framed in the press and in our opposition’s statements, as a conflict: Musicians versus residents. That framing works on the assumption that resident equals upstanding citizen, and musician equals rabble-rouser who disturbs the quality of life. And it raises the really fundamental question of who gets to judge what is “good” and “bad” in our shared urban landscape. We live here. We work here. We vote here. We are the residents….
In New Orleans, music and culture need a seat at the table. And the city council is just going to have to find a bigger table.

Nine years past disaster, decades (if not a century or two) into an ongoing and deepening disharmony between New Orleans and its indigenous jazz culture, comes a moment when the issues that can deepen or lessen these tensions are laid out on that table.
Is it big and sturdy enough to withstand the hammering out of a policy with enough sensitivity and coherence to honor both the premise and promise of New Orleans culture?
Photos: Larry Blumenfeld

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